Qualifications again

I see the Telegraph is running a scare story about a “failing school” (actually, it’s not…) advertising for a teacher with “just four GCSEs”, and saying “a maths degree is desirable, but not essential”.  Naturally, the Telegraph being the Telegraph, this is immediately condemned without engaging any thought processes first.

There are quite a lot of maths teachers out there without maths degrees. Some have, for example, degrees in related disciplines (physics, engineering), or have done a different degree and then a subject enhancement course, or sometimes (like a friend of mine) have ended up teaching it, quite happily, despite a different initial specialism. Now, I wouldn’t want to let people without a substantial maths background  loose on preparing kids for STEP, and I’d have to be pretty convinced about their knowledge to have them teaching A-level.  But this school does not teach A-level maths!  Of course someone teaching GCSE needs to know the subject to a decent level so they can answer questions from bright pupils who want to go beyond the syllabus… but they don’t need a maths degree (necessarily) to do that.

Now let’s look at that GCSE requirement.  The Telegraph (despite their usual lack of enthusiasm for union leaders), quotes  the deputy secretary of the NUT as saying “Parents will absolutely shocked to think that any child of theirs would be taught by someone with four GCSEs.”   And indeed, it maybe does sound a little odd given the normal requirement for five or more.

But looking a little more deeply –  the requirements for getting on a PGCE, in terms of GCSEs, are English, Maths and a science at Primary, and English + Maths for Secondary. Obviously appropriate degree-level qualifications are also required.  Doesn’t actually specify a number of GCSEs – are we taking people on PGCEs who schools shouldn’t employ then?   And whilst those who follow the conventional route of GCSEs, A-levels, straight to university might reasonably be expected to have a decent range of GCSEs, what about those who enter teaching as mature students?  There are some people who, for whatever reason, didn’t get their qualifications at school, but have come back to education at a later stage, and done their degree with the OU, or at an institution offering access via a foundation year.  Once they have their degrees, are we saying they must go back and take 8 GCSEs?  Is that really the best use of their time?  Or perhaps we just don’t want people who haven’t followed the conventional path in teaching, no matter that they may be in a particularly good position to empathise with kids for whom secondary education isn’t going well.

OK, I do think the school should have perhaps worded their advert rather more carefully to avoid being pilloried in the press.  I also see the need to be very careful in assessing the applications of those with less conventional qualifications – in the past I’ve been caught out when employing someone with an unusual background who turned out not to be academically suitable for what we wanted him to do.

I am certainly no defender of teachers who don’t know their stuff, but we should not be so simplistic about judging that as the Telegraph would like us to be.

(Incidentally, I also wrote a letter to Chemistry World  on the subject of specialist teachers if you haven’t read enough already…)

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